Goal setting is a blessing and a curse for people with depression. One of the main symptoms of depression is low mood and motivation, making the attainment of goals seem difficult, or at times impossible. The more goals that go unachieved, the more a feeling of incapability or helplessness might sink in, reinforcing a depression cycle. Equally, the ability to achieve meaningful goals offers a sense of purpose that can cause the veil of depression to lift.
Part of the difficulty with this process is that the landscape of accomplishment is changed for someone who is experiencing depression. Collectively, we’re moving on from responses such as “just get over it,” to a more nuanced understanding. But the finer details of setting and achieving goals whilst in the midst of depression is still a work in progress.
In this article, I’ll share some tips and wisdom, from personal experience and fields of psychology, regarding the different goal-setting approaches required for depression. I’m a big believer that people can remain empowered and resourceful, even when their mental health is at a low. But that requires a few shifts in perspective, combined with a few bespoke tools.
Start From Ground Zero
One of my personal mottos is: “the only man I try to beat, is the man I was last week.” It serves many areas of life and self-improvement, including physical exercise, spiritual development, and goal setting. It keeps me focused on my journey, rather than comparing myself to others. But above all else, it scales up as I grow and evolve, supporting me in the midst of depression, and supporting me as I continue to achieve goals I never dreamed were possible all those years ago.
This motto points to what I call the ground zero approach. The ground zero approach is the very beginning of the goal-setting process. It begins with an honest assessment of your current circumstances, allowing you to develop goals that are achievable. There’s a balance of compassion with this process — push yourself too hard, and you might overextend. Don’t push yourself at all, and you might become trapped in a cycle of learned helplessness and low self-esteem.
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A huge part of accomplishing goals is setting the right goals, something often overlooked. When it comes to depression, there has to be even more care and consideration when setting goals. That includes the awareness that the standard context is often entangled with hustle culture, work-hard-play-hard mentality, or hyper-productivity.
Many standardized goals that emerge in this field, from waking at 5 am to high levels of output or facing your fears, aren’t tailored for people who have depression. If you overlook your personal ground zero and use this as a template, you could end up choosing goals that are out of reach. The attempt to achieve those goals could cause more damage than good.
Adjusting the Context of Goal Setting
Finding the right context for your goals is an inward process. There’s a need to reject the standards of the wider culture and work on goals that stretch you, just enough, into a state of improvement or development. That improvement comes from ground zero, not an idea of where you’d like to start from. Many psychological models point to this. Even Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s model of flow shows how the flow state emerges when skill and challenge level is adequately balanced.
When it comes to depression specifically, psychologist Jonathan Rottenberg highlights a paradox of depression and goal setting in his book The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. He writes that “depressed people don’t end up lying in bed because they are undercommitted to goals. They end up lying in bed because they are overcommitted to goals that are failing.”
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By external standards, the ground zero approach might not appear remarkable or groundbreaking. But is will be remarkable or groundbreaking when you take in full consideration of your ground zero. If you are struggling to get out of bed due to low mood, an unrealistic goal is to attempt to meditate for half an hour, journal, and write 1,000 words before the sun rises. Being committed to that vision neglects your ground zero, and makes you more likely to fail, or at least perceive yourself as failing.
Perfectionism and Progressive Overload
Building upon Rottenberg’s quote above, many people with depression demonstrate perfectionist tendencies. Perfectionism is also a big cause of procrastination. This isn’t surprising when you consider the nature of perfectionism. The authors of a 2018 study in Personality and Individual Differences note that: “the typical perfectionist is stuck in an endless loop of self-defeating and over-striving in which each new task is seen as an opportunity for failure, disappointment and harsh self-rebuke.” With depression, many normal goals are out of reach, and perfectionism can cause someone to strive to find the achievement of these goals easy when in reality, they aren’t.
This is challenging because this goes against the grain of societal expectations, and that’s the point — goal setting for depression has to respect the depression, without being a victim of it. That makes setting goals that incorporate ground zero a humbling process. It might mean having the goal to sleep in for only 30 minutes, not an hour, a few times per week.
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In weight training, there’s a technique known as progressive overload. Every time you train, attempt to lift a little more, progressively, whether that’s more weight, a few extra reps, or slightly better form. One more rep, or an extra kilo, is progress. When it comes to physical strength it’s tough to be dishonest — you can’t tell yourself you can bench 100kg if you struggle to lift 50kg. The same approach has to be taken to mental strength. Discover your current strength level, and aim for progress over time.
A Guide to Goal Setting for Depression
I’m a big believer that depression acts as a springboard to more fulfillment and greater well-being in the long run. Rottenberg agrees. His research has shown the need to reevaluate depression due to the number of people who thrive post-depression, which conflicts with the concept of depression being an incurable life sentence. One way depression can be a springboard is by learning a healthy, balanced approach to progress.
When you apply the progressive overload technique to life, you’ll find a sweet spot of pushing yourself, one that always keeps in mind where you’re at, whilst setting realistic but ambitious goals of where you’d like to be. With that in mind, below are practical steps to begin to incorporate goal setting for depression, to start at ground zero, without sacrificing ambition:
1. Accept your personal ground zero
It can be incredibly frustrating to feel restricted in comparison to others, especially if you’re ambitious. Feelings that surface around this are valid and have to be fully seen and understood. You might feel resentment or envy if you feel your mental health is holding you back. You might wish things were different. Give space for this, without falling into self-pity, or giving up completely.
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The process of acceptance can take time. It’s humbling because the ego will resist the nature of things. But acceptance means taking an honest assessment of where you’re at. How is depression affecting your life? Where are you wishing things to be different, or forcing yourself to reach standards that don’t incorporate depression?
2. Cultivate self-compassion
Compassion is the desire to act to alleviate suffering. That makes it dynamic, as not all causes of suffering are the same, or require the same approach. Sometimes taking action alleviates suffering. Sometimes self-soothing or comfort alleviates suffering. Sometimes it’s a mixture of both. Either way, accepting your personal ground zero, and your needs at any given moment, involves self-compassion.
You might notice that you judge where you’re at as being weak. You might notice thoughts about never being good enough, or never being able to achieve big life goals when day-to-day activities are a struggle. In these situations, remind yourself that depression isn’t your fault, but it is your responsibility, and you can grow beyond its boundaries. Push yourself with consideration, not with resentment.
3. Work on self-validation
Recently I was talking to a friend who suffers from extreme anxiety. She was feeling upset that most people don’t see the amount of effort that goes into small accomplishments, such as going to the shops alone, meeting a friend for coffee, or walking through the center of town when it’s busy. It remains the case that people who haven’t experienced mental illness themselves might struggle to relate to accomplishments that others take for granted.
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That’s okay. Rather than looking for validation externally, learn to validate yourself from the inside, as you take into consideration what your personal ground zero was. If you manage to get up 30 minutes earlier after weeks or months of sleeping in, celebrate! This is the other side of the coin; if you’re able to honestly see where you’re at when you set goals, you’re able to earnestly celebrate when you achieve goals that are big wins from that starting point.
4. Become your own marker of success
I don’t believe in setting low standards or seeing depression as irrecoverable, or a life sentence. Part of the process of “beating the man (or woman) you were last week,” is accepting that your journey is your journey, and no one else’s. Only you can truly know where you’re starting from, what you’re up against, and what parts of yourself threaten to hold you back. Only you know the inner voice telling you what you can or can’t do, and on the flipside, only you know how great it feels when you prove that inner voice wrong.
Goal setting, like all forms of development, is deeply personal. Yes, these tips apply to depression, because of the need to find a healthier context. But they apply just as much to anyone on the path of self-development. Dream big, as big as you can, and never allow any restrictions to dilute those dreams. Balance those dreams with practicality, honesty, and the ability to grow from where you’re at.
Allow your goals to evolve as you do. Keep improving, be patient when progress stalls, and remember that one day the person you were trying to beat is so many weeks away, that they’re unrecognizable. That’s the biggest victory you can achieve. So keep fighting. Be honest about your ground zero. And remember even the tallest trees in the world were once seeds below the soil.
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